“The Lords of Salem” is probably goth rocker-turned-filmmaker Rob Zombie’s best film, though it does often prove that the cinephile writer/director is a gifted tyro. At the same time, as his most formally mannered and tonally tempered film, Zombie’s latest also proves his versatility. Set in modern-day Salem, Massachusetts, the film follows the seduction of a disc jockey (Sheri Moon Zombie, Rob’s wife), whose family was cursed by a coven of centuries-old witches.
Zombie follows his lead protagonist from a marked distance, and makes a point of showing that the fate his characters suffer is a product of their inability to recognize their place within a whirlpool of generic history. It’s a heady thesis, and one Zombie establishes in a number of ways, from his controlled Carpenter/Polanski-esque tracking shots to the evocation of both Kubrick and Lynch, particularly “Eraserhead” and “Eyes Wide Shut,” in the scenes where Moon Zombie’s character is under the spell of the witches. The relatively staid nature of ‘Lords’ makes the context — within which his frenzied and typically free-associative pastiche works — a bit hard to swallow. But ‘Lords’ is also probably his most ambitious film, and maybe even his most accomplished, as it’s his most unnerving.
As the lead protagonist of “The Lords of Salem,” Heidi Hawthorne (Moon Zombie) is slowly and deliberately overwhelmed by witches. She’s initially unaware of her relationship to these witches, nor why she’s being singled out by these Satan-worshipping women, who were put to death centuries ago by the obsessed witch-hunter Reverend John Hawthorne (Richard Lynch) during the Salem Witch Trials. But Heidi’s lethargic addiction-like symptoms are initially dismissed by her friend and co-workers Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman (Ken Foree, of “Dawn of the Dead” and “From Beyond” fame) since Heidi is a recovering drug addict. So as days pass, marked by austere inter-titles that mark the days of the week, the people that care most about Heidi only mobilize to do something once the witches already have Heidi under their influence.
‘Lords’ is as compelling as it is because it’s driven by a creeping, albeit perhaps over-determined, sense of atmospheric dread. Zombie ratchets up the tension slowly and decisively. Flashbacks of the pointedly ugly and frequently naked witches cavorting in the woods and then noisily being tortured and put to death are effective, in that they bludgeon you until you expect something really sadistic and unusual will happen to Heidi at any moment. So the measured tracking shots that Zombie uses to further draw out viewers' anticipation feel that much more cruel, though again, effective. This wouldn’t matter at all, were Zombie not capable of producing simultaneously mysterious and frightening monsters to leap out at the encroaching shadows of Heidi’s apartment. In that regard, Zombie is still a master. What makes ‘Lords’ markedly, though not vastly, better than his previous four films, however, is that the context within which his brutally effective ability to produce funhouse spooks is utilized.
So the good news is that watching Heidi fatalistically become the witches’ vessel is compelling because Heidi and her friends are rather sympathetic. As in “Halloween 2,” where Zombie sketches out back-stories for characters so that you actually care about whether they live or die, ‘Lords’ gives you a couple of genuinely moving scenes that establish the film’s stakes. A final phone call between Whitey and Heidi is particularly well-directed, performed and scripted, which is saying something, given that Moon Zombie’s range as a performer hasn’t significantly increased since “House of 1000 Corpses.” And while the modern-day representatives of the Salem witches are serviceably one-note (you can’t help but know them immediately when you see them), Francis (the typically charismatic Bruce Davison), a skeptical author and expert on the Salem Witch Trials, is thankfully a believable force of good, as is his woefully under-utilized wife Alice (Maria Conchita Alonso).
The bad news is that Zombie’s still not a strong enough scenarist to provide a totally convincing context for his latest self-referential horror film. For example, the free-associative quality to his allusiveness in the film is sometimes distractingly conspicuous. Were the film not a relatively steady descent into madness, free-associative references to films like the fairly obscure film noir “Kansas City Confidential” and images from the equally cult-friendly Commander Cody science fiction serials would not be as bothersome. But, partly because his film is about the violent resurgence of the past, Zombie makes these allusions aggressively prominent. Footage from “Kansas City Confidential” is used in two different scenes, one in which it’s in the background, and one in which it is prominently used in the film’s foreground. Given the specific scenes that Zombie cherry-picks, these references often make an immediate kind of sense. But it’s still perplexing why Zombie chose that particular film to underscore the point he making in that particular way and at those particular points in his film.
More pressing is the way that the witches, when given a chance to talk, are fairly generic menaces. They don’t do anything especially surprising or memorably cruel. Then again, they don’t really need to, as they mostly serve to usher Heidi to a trippy, oneiric world of “Phantom of the Opera” references, monsters in cheesecloth masks and red pulsating neon crucifixes. “The Lords of Salem” is a product of Zombie’s better creative impulses, so it’s ok that it also features several of his worse indulgences, too. [B+]